The most persistent plot in literature—from Homer to Tolkien—portrays individuals journeying away from home in search of some object, only to eventually return, sometimes tattered and torn, but always wiser. In the South, musicians and artists record the meaning of home as a place that people carry with them in their hearts, that shapes them and to which they long to return. In her poignant memoir, Up Home: One Girl’s Journey, Ruth J. Simmons carries readers with her as she recounts the contours of her own journey from sharecroppers’ daughter in Grapeland, Texas, to president of Smith College and Brown University, memorializing the many individuals who guided her.
Simmons chronicles her upbringing in Grapeland with her brothers and sisters, where they explored dirt roads and nearby fields, observed wild animals and the animals on the farm and played various games when they weren’t toiling in the fields and keeping up with the drudgery of household chores. Her parents fell into the rigid marital patterns typical of the 1940s and 1950s. Her father was a severe disciplinarian who did not think women should be educated or work outside the home, and he “did not act like a caring husband who appreciated my mother’s love and sacrifices.” Her mother was a “homemaker who managed the household and reared her children,” but Simmons and her sisters did not want to be like her.
When the family moves to Houston, Simmons begins to excel in the classroom and in various extracurricular activities, discovering new facets of the world and launching herself on the journey that carries her from the limiting factors of home in Texas—race, poverty, segregation—to the expansiveness of Europe and eventual leadership in higher education. Along the way, she introduces readers to teachers who helped her, such as her first grade teacher Ida Mae Henderson, who shows Simmons “for the first time . . . the kind of independence of spirit that made life free, happy, and meaningful. If learning could lead to such a result, I wanted it to be a part of my life forever.” Her high-school drama teacher, Miss Lillie, encourages her, working to schedule a one-woman show for Simmons. At the same time, Simmons reads “as many books as possible of every genre . . . wanting to learn specific ways language could open doors to unfamiliar worlds.”
Up Home recalls a life richly shaped by experiences with languages, literature and mentors that helped Simmons become a person she never expected to be. Her sparkling prose and vibrant storytelling invite readers to accompany her on her journey.